With just a car battery and a few spoonfuls of table salt, communities in developing countries are now getting access to clean, drinkable water.
Seattle-based outdoor gear company MSR just released an electro hydro chlorinator that’s about the size and shape of a coffee cup. The SE200 Community Chlorine Maker makes for a cheap, uncomplicated way to quickly treat large amounts of water. Using 50 milliliters of salt and 12 volts of electricity, it produces 50 milliliters of 0.8 percent chlorine solution in five minutes, enough to make 55 gallons of water safe to drink.
In 2008, PATH, a global heath non-profit also based in Seattle, went to MSR looking for community-based solutions to the lack of clean water in developing countries. MSR, which has spent a lot of time building water treatment devices for the military and outdoor enthusiasts, wanted to use their technology in a broader context.
“They challenged us to find a way for 50 to 200 people, with no money and intermittent access to the supply chain, to have clean water,” says Laura McLaughlin, MSR’s director of global health.
The second largest cause of death for young children in the developing world is diarrheal diseases, brought on by unsafe drinking water. “It’s a global problem. Every day 1,000 kids under five die from contaminated water,” says Glenn Austin, PATH’s senior advisor of product development. In isolated, low-resource communities, the main water source is often untreated, or residents end up carrying water from sources—sometimes for six hours a day—in unclean receptacles, like old oil jerry cans.
To curb that contamination, PATH and MSR wanted to find a way to quickly and cheaply treat large quantities of water at an easily accessible community source. And they wanted to do it in a way that could be replicated anywhere.
According to the World Health Organization, adding chlorine to water, as a means of making it potable, is practical and smart for worldwide use. “Of the drinking water disinfectants, free chlorine is the most widely used, the most easily used and the most affordable. It is also highly effective against nearly all waterborne pathogens,” the group reports. But it’s tricky to dose, and, once the solution is mixed, it has a short shelf life, so it can be hard to deliver to low-access areas. The SE200 solves that problem by quickly producing chlorine on site in a small device.
Research for the chlorinator started in 2008 with funds from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and grants from the marines and army. MSR has a Biosafety Level 2 water lab at their headquarters in Seattle, which means that they can test water treatment devices on polio and other infectious diseases, so the company often does research for government organizations. In 2003, they developed the Miox water purifying pen, designed for backpackers, which used the same hydrolysis procedure, but on a smaller scale. “We learned a lot from the outdoor world,” says Tim Oriard, MSR’s water lab director.
Users put measured amounts of salt and water into the SE200, then plug it to a car battery or a similar 12-volt power source. “NaCL, or salt, dissolves into sodium and chloride ions. When you apply electricity the electrons carry current, so the chlorine ions essentially oxidize into chlorine,” says Oriard. The device has sensors that test the dilution levels so it always makes the right amount of solution, preventing under-chlorinated water, but not adding enough that it becomes unpalatable or dangerous to drink. The kit also comes with test strips, so users can check for accurate dilution rates by hand too. In the water lab, MSR tested the filter on pathogens ranging from giardia to polio.
Once MSR had a prototype, the company partnered with humanitarian aid organization, World Vision, to get it into communities in Kenya and Mali, and to get feedback from users. They’ve already been through several iterations, making sure it was tough, transportable, easy to fix and made sense in the communities they were targeting. “For instance, users in Africa wanted it to light up when it was running, to know that it was working,” Oriard says.
Now, MSR has placed 15 kits in each country at test sites, including marketplaces and schools. They plan to scale up to 60 over the next three months. It’s also for sale, for $239, so NGOs and other aid groups can buy and implement them. MSR is also working on larger-scale chlorine-generating products that would be bigger and could produce a higher volume of chlorine, and which could be used for disaster relief, in refugee camps, or in other venues where large groups of people need immediate access to clean water.
“Car batteries and table salt are the only consumables, and they’re easy to find around the world,” McLaughlin says. “This overcomes the supply chain issue.”